Naked Politics recently conducted a (virtual!) interview with the Chair of the Youth Select Committee, Rachel Ojo. We chatted about what a select committee is and does and what we can do to make politics appetising to young people. We also spoke in-depth about the work the YSC is doing to target knife crime across the UK and their recent report on the issue!
How did you first get involved in the UK Youth Parliament and the Youth Select Committee and what made you want to take part?
At the age of 12, I became an active member of my local youth council. I then joined the Young Essex Assembly as a representative for the young people of Basildon. The opportunity then came up for me to run to represent Essex as a member of the UK Youth Parliament. I wanted this opportunity because I felt it was a good platform to raise awareness of local issues but also to learn more about problems in different parts of the UK.
I have now just finished a 3-year term as a member of the UK Youth Parliament and during this time I have had the experience of delivering a speech in the House of Commons, marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act (this is a 1918 Act that first extended the vote to some women in Britain) and I have also helped with the annual Make Your Mark survey that over 1 million young people express their views in. When I found out about the Youth Select Committee and the topic for the report, I was eager to participate because I know that knife crime is an important issue to my peers and I know that I wanted to be part of the solution instead of just being a bystander.
Many people aren’t familiar with how a select committee works; what’s the purpose of them and what do they do?
A select committee works in Parliament and conducts an inquiry into a topic. There are a wide range of select committees in existence that look into different issues. The UK Youth Select Committee is formed of 11 young people who are interested in the topic of knife crime. Last year we started our journey with a call for evidence. We created a well-received online survey for young people and we received written evidence from many different organisations.
We also visited the St Giles Trust (a charity that provides financial support to underprivileged young people) and I was able to attend a reception at 10 Downing Street hosted by former PM, Theresa May. I also hosted oral evidence sessions at the House of Commons so that we could ask targeted questions.
After all of this, we discussed and analysed all our evidence and eventually formulated our report of recommendations to the Government, which was launched this February in Parliament. We are eagerly awaiting the Government response to our report and to hear the actions they will take as a result!
Why did the Youth Select Committee decide to focus on the issue of knife crime? Do you feel like it’s an issue of particular importance to young people?
In the Make Your Mark survey conducted by the UK Youth Parliament, over 1 million young people took part and knife crime was by far the most pressing issue. Knife crime predominantly affects young people and it seems like almost every week we hear about another tragic incident that has taken away the precious life of a young person. It is evident in the news, it is evident in the statistics; this is a national emergency that can no longer be said to be concentrated in the Capital.
As we see an increase in county lines (county lines drug trafficking is the practice of trafficking drugs into rural areas and smaller towns, away from major cities), we are seeing an increase in knife crime incidents in more rural areas. The young people chose this issue because we do not want to have to live in fear; for ourselves, for our friends and for our siblings.
From the findings of yourself and other young people on the committee, what are the main causes of knife crime?
Inequality of opportunity means that some young people do not have hope for the future and they may feel like society has already given up on them. A lot of young people carry a knife out of fear, because they think everyone else does, because they’d “rather be caught with a knife than without one”. Young people who have adverse childhood experiences, do not have a stable home life or are put in pupil referral units, are often more vulnerable to joining a gang or committing knife crime.
What were your recommendations to help solve knife crime, and do you currently think the Government is doing enough?
I think the Government is trying but they are not currently doing enough. They have previously not had the guidance of young people so have been using their resources ineffectively. We want the government to set clear targets and show commitment by making funding guarantees over a longer period in a bid to ensure that youth services can recover. They play an essential role in the lives of many young people and can help to prevent youth violence. The government should seek relatable role models from all walks of life and should not underestimate how effective it can be to use people with lived experience to communicate with young people. Stop and search has many issues that need to be addressed before powers are extended. It is not right that black men are disproportionately targeted. I believe this is one of the reasons why the relationship between the community and the police has deteriorated in recent years.
Young people often feel apathetic about politics, despite often being involved in things like online and social activism. Why do you think that is and what do you think we can do to make young people feel more involved in politics?
Some young people feel that politics is something reserved for older people. I strongly believe that every young person should actively engage in politics to make sure that we have a say in decisions that affect our future. We need more young MPs, we need more young councillors; essentially, we need more young people around the table when big decisions are being made. I always strive to encourage young people.
I think by creating more opportunities for involvement, such as the UK Youth Parliament and other organisations, we can empower young people to be the change they want to see. I always say to people I meet, you don’t have to be the most confident or coherent, all you need is passion and a desire to see change.
If you want to read the YSC’s report, you can check it out here.